Emotions are hard-wired

On the right are some photos taken by Duchenne du Boulogne in the 1850s. Both the man and the woman have facial nerve damage which rendered them insensitive to the electrical probes attached to their heads. What the photos show is that it is possible to produce artificial smiles by stimulating certain facial muscles. Charles Darwin, in his book on Emotions, used this as evidence that human being are programmed by evolution to produce emotional signals spontaneously through the brain and nervous system. And that you can’t fake them.

Neither the man nor the woman are actually laughing, as is shown by the fact (if you look closely) that, in the man’s case his eyes are not smiling, while in the woman’s case only one side of the face is smiling.

You can’t fake emotions. Nor can you will them. Emotions surprise us because we can’t control them. And they are outside your conscious control for a very good reason. Namely, that the body is in communication with your mind

What is emotional intelligence?

To understand emotional intelligence we should consider five ways to think about it:

  1. What emotions are, and what they are for
  2. The difference between emotions and states of mind
  3. Why present-moment awareness is vital to recognising emotion
  4. When we can expect to experience emotions
  5. When it is ok not to have emotions

What emotions are for

Briefly, an emotion is a Bodymind comment on the situation we are in. It tells us what sort of situation it is (e.g. threatening, confusing, rewarding, etc). Emotions also predict what will happen if we don’t take action, and guide us towards the correct actions to take (e.g. connecting to other people, asserting one’s rights, fixing problems, having fun, etc.).

Emotional states are automatically generated in the limbic system (mid-brain area) working through the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. With multiple impacts on the muscles, skin, gut and nervous system in general. Thus creating the feeling state that communicates the body’s opinion of events unfolding in front of us.

Here is a list of the most common emotions, along with the actions they are calling for:

  • Fear. Calls for you to get help and support.
  • Anger. Calls for you to assert your rights.
  • Frustration: Calls for you to take a break from situations you can’t control.
  • Sadness. Calls for you to draw closer to other people.
  • Disgust. Calls for you to withdraw from noxious situations (or people)
  • Joy. Calls for you to engage more in things that give you reward.

The difference between emotions and pseudo-emotions

States like anxiety, depression and resentment are not emotions. They are states of mind. For example, anxiety builds up as the mind engages in worry or depressing thoughts.  The sensations of anxiety and depressed mood arise because these thoughts trigger alarm mechanisms as the body uses to warn us that we are in the wrong head space. These alarm signals relate to the individual’s mind set rather to external events. They are there, in fact, to encourage us to change our thinking. While emotions are there to propel us towards action.

Resentment is a special case. It comes about from chewing over old memories of times when others hurt us. It serves no purpose except to keep us trapped in the past. When we really should be working on letting go and living in the present moment.

Why awareness is important

If we are not in present moment awareness then it is difficult for us to notice emotions. Rather, we are likely to be distracted by thoughts. That is why the practice of mindfulness is helpful in developing emotional intelligence: it enables us to sense, feel, recognise and name our emotions. Distinguishing one type of emotion from another.

Practicing mindfulness techniques filters out the yada-yada that pollutes awareness. And doing that enables us to move with the flow of experience as circumstances change, and our emotions emerge.

When we can expect to have emotions

With some exceptions an emotional release is triggered whenever an unexpected change takes place. For example, your child is late home, your partner upsets you, or something frustrates you. Your body triggers fear, anger and frustration respectively. Your body reacts several times faster than the thinking centres, and delivers a call to action. This has survival value.

Emotions are always related to context; to things that are happening to us right now. Most of the time they relate to what the people around us are doing: loving, annoying, grieving, demanding, helping, or exciting us.

It is ok not to have emotions

It’s ok not to have emotions when you don’t actually have any.

Bodymind creates emotions like fear, anger and sadness when it wants to alert you to something important to your well-being, help you understand the situation you are in, motivate you to do something about it, and guide you towards the appropriate action.  When your body doesn’t have any concerns about you then you won’t have any emotions.

Some people worry that they don’t get angry, or don’t feel sad when they lose someone close. Assuming they aren’t stuck in their heads and have lost contact with their bodies, the reason may be that they don’t have anything to get angry about. For example some people don’t get angry when someone insults them. The reason for that is they don’t think the insults are worth bothering about. Another person may not feel sad when a relationship breaks up. The reason for that might is that they have outgrown it.

Pay close attention to the emotions your body actually sends you. You don’t have to waste time on pseudo-emotions, or in looking for emotions that aren’t there.


3 thoughts on “What emotions are for”
  1. […] Starting with the box on the bottom left we can see the negative side of the Thinking Mind, which for convenience I call ‘Junkmind’. This is the source of all our mental health disorders and the crazy thinking which creates havoc with our lives. Spending too much time there will lead to what I have called the ‘Distressed Body’ (fallaciously known as ‘Stress’) on the bottom right. And if we don’t do anything about this distress then we might develop illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Medically Unexplained Pain along with other mysterious conditions. When the Body is in distress for too long then anxiety, clinical depression, and the symptoms of chronic illness will smother the emotional messages it is also sending us. For a description of how emotions actually work see my earlier blog post here. […]

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